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Last Updated: Monday, 17 September 2007, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Egyptian journalists losing tug of war
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst

Ibrahim Issa (28 February 2007)
Ibrahim Issa's criticism of the state has landed him in trouble before
Journalists and human rights activists have expressed anger and dismay over the prison sentences handed down on Friday to four Egyptian newspaper editors for libelling President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party.

The four men were sentenced to one year in jail with hard labour and also given hefty fines for publishing false information with the aim of undermining national security, according to court papers cited by the Egyptian press.

The Egyptian Press Syndicate has said it was a declaration of war on the press and demanded a repeal of all laws allowing journalists to be jailed.

Amnesty International has protested against the trial, describing it as part of a continuous series of attacks against free press in the country.

The editors - Ibrahim Issa of al-Dustour, Adel Hammouda of al-Fagr, Wael al-Ebrashi of Sawt al-Umma and Abdul Halim Qandil of al-Karama - have said they will appeal against the verdict.

Irreverence

The trial of four of the most vocal critics of the ruling party and Mr Mubarak is the latest event in an ongoing tug of war between journalists and the state in Egypt.

There is a contradiction between the de-facto freedom that some journalists have won over the years... and a legal arsenal which is extremely repressive
Abdul Halim Qandil
Editor of al-Karama

Egyptian newspapers routinely publish provocative and sensationalist material, partly because they know it sells well, but also because they are determined to challenge the draconian laws that they say criminalise freedom of expression.

This has landed them in trouble before, and will do so again, unless the laws are changed.

One of the editors, Ibrahim Issa, narrowly escaped being sent to prison in February after an appeal court overturned a one year sentence against him for defaming the president.

He is to appear in court again next month for allegedly spreading rumours about the health of Mr Mubarak.

Mr Issa's newspaper, al-Dustour, is popular not only because of its sensationalism, but also because it displays a certain degree of irreverence towards the president and his entourage - something which is hard to find in the sycophantic state media.

Contradictions

Another of the editors, Abdul Halim Qandil, explained to the BBC Arabic Service the wider context of the trial.

Journalists' protest (2006)
Egyptian journalists have protested against changes to press laws

"There is a contradiction between the de-facto freedom that some journalists have won over the years - those who made criticising the president part of the freedom of the press - and a legal arsenal which is extremely repressive and calls for the jailing of journalists in 25 instances in the penal code," he said.

"The conflict we are witnessing now is a result of this contradiction."

But the editors have also come in for some criticism.

They have been accused of failing to respect the crucial distinction between reporting facts and expressing opinion.

Some journalists have acknowledged the problem, but say that the best way forward is not to jail offending journalists but to enforce the existing professional code.





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